“Early morning, April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky,” proclaimed U2 in their tribute to Martin Luther King. “Free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride.”
The song – Pride (In the name of love) – was U2’s first single to break into the US charts, and took their album to number one in the UK. For those like myself growing up in the 1980s, it became a generational anthem, and regularly features in lists of the greatest rock songs of all time.
What I missed at the time, in my precocious teenage atheism, was the reference to Jesus in the lyrics. “One man betrayed with a kiss” it says in verse two. I should have payed more attention. The production of the song had been rushed, and Bono later felt that the lyrics were unfinished and impressionistic. But sometimes a fragment or hint is all you need.
Assassinated 50 years ago this week, it seems that Martin Luther King – like Jesus – eerily anticipated his own death.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Dr King told the crowd in a speech he made the day before he was shot. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
As Professor Jonathan Rider, author of the Gospel of Freedom, comments, “For a long time, King had been aware that white supremacists and local groups of Klansmen had been stalking him… He knew there were plenty of people who wanted to take him out. The forces of white supremacy had killed many civil rights workers – and he was the most visible.” *
King knew he was a target, yet refused to back down. He trusted, in the end, God would vindicate him and his cause.
There’s a clue here to understanding Jesus I might have appreciated as a teenager, had I listened. The analogy with King suggests a way to see the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans not as an act of suicide, nor a sacrifice to appease an angry heavenly Father – interpretations that never made sense to me at the time – but as the inevitable consequence of his decision to stand for justice in an unjust world.
Jesus entered Jerusalem like a revolutionary. He threw money changers out of the temple, was scathing about the rich and powerful, and championed the poor, the weak, and the outcast. He provided a visible and radical challenge to the religious and political system of the day, and refused to back down or run away. You don’t have to have special powers to predict what happens to people like this. Then as now, the answer was clear: resist the powers-that-be, and they will, in the end, crucify you. *
Seen this way, the crucifixion becomes a symbol of Jesus’ faithfulness to the struggle for justice in the face of overwhelming opposition, even to the point of death. As Christ was killed, so also were Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and countless others throughout history who have stood for freedom and justice in the face of oppression.
And in this context, the meaning of the resurrection also becomes clear: God’s vindication of the crucified, a declaration that this was God’s cause, and an expression of hope that God’s justice will in the end be victorious. The promised land is coming, as King would put it, and so we fight on.
It’s not the only way to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. But for those who struggle with traditional Christian dogma, it could be a place to start. It was for me.
* For the quotes from Martin Luther King and Jonathan Rider, see the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43545620, accessed 28/3/18; and for more on this reading of Jesus, see Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the gospels really teach about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem (SPCK 2008).